How To Handle An Increased Workload (And When To Ask For Help)

Try these tactics if you’re in danger of being crushed by your workload. Then if all else fails, follow this guide to saying no.

How To Handle An Increased Workload (And When To Ask For Help)
[Photo: Paweł Kadysz via Tookapic]

The more immersed in your role you become, the more tasks and projects you end up taking on. In theory, at least, that’s how you pick up the experience to get promoted, then hand off lower-level assignments to others.


But it doesn’t always work that way in practice. Many companies are still trying to squeeze more out of fewer employees, in what some experts see as a symptom of the lingering economic hangover from the last financial crisis.

Whatever their cause, mounting workloads are a fact of life for many of us, and keeping them in check can be a constant struggle. According to a recent Glassdoor survey, employees are growing more dissatisfied with their work-life balance, and a separate study found that the 40-hour workweek is in retreat, with some 46% of people in management positions around the world saying they’re putting in more hours than they did five years ago.

So how can you stem the tide of more work and longer hours? Start by taking these steps to better manage your workload. And if you still feel on the verge of burnout, follow the plan for getting some of the work off your plate for good.

How To Get A Better Handle On Your Work

1. Determine where you max out. Before you can start making changes to how you manage your workload, you first need to figure out where your upper limit lies. If you’re starting to lose motivation in your work, feeling chronically exhausted, or butting heads with your colleagues, chances are you’ve already crossed that threshold and are nearing burnout.

In that case, don’t start tweaking your working habits before getting your mind-set back on track. Be a little more selfish, even if only in small doses. Simple habits like meditating for 10 minutes each day and short, regular bursts of exercise can provide benefits to your wellbeing that are far out of proportion with the time it actually takes to do them.


Read more: The Secrets To Recognizing And Avoiding Burnout

2. Get back in touch with the big picture. Prioritizing is about perspective. It starts with accepting that there are some things you might not–indeed, probably won’t–be able to accomplish in the limited time available to you. You need to embrace that, not resist it, then turn it to your advantage.

To do so, first distinguish between urgent and important tasks. Chances are, nothing on your to-do list will strike you as fundamentally unimportant; if that were the case, prioritizing wouldn’t really be an issue. Separate the things that need your immediate attention from those that don’t, no matter how crucial they are in the mid- to long-term.

Read more: 4 Odd Yet Effective Ways The Smartest People Prioritize Their Days

3. Try new tools. According to productivity expert Carson Tate, many organizational tools and methods fail because they assume all users struggle to stay on task for the same reasons. But that isn’t true. Instead, she says, “We need to personalize our strategies for making the most out of our workdays so they’re aligned with our cognitive styles.”


According to Tate, most of us fall into one of four categories:

  1. Logical, analytical, linear, and data-oriented
  2. Organized, sequential, a planner, and detail-oriented
  3. Supportive, expressive, and emotionally oriented
  4. Big-picture, integrative, and ideation-oriented

There are certain tools–from apps to low-tech solutions like legal pads–that fit some of those personality types better than others. If your workload is getting away from you, take this short test to find out your working style, then consult Tate’s list of productivity tools that play to your strengths.

Read more: Chronically Unproductive? It’s Not You, It’s Your Tools

How To Ask For Help When All Else Fails

You’ve tried all that, and you’re still flailing. The good news is that (unless you’re a freelancer) there are people in your organization whose job it is to help you do your best. They’re called bosses, and while asking for help can feel like admitting failure, you won’t be doing yourself or your company any favors by pretending all is well when it isn’t.


There are a few ways to set boundaries that can prevent too much work from landing in your lap. Psychologist Karissa Thacker suggests employees ask themselves these two questions when they’re assigned new tasks:

  1. Am I the best person to take this on?
  2. Who else can I enlist to partner and collaborate with on this?

That can restore some agency to overloaded workers who still want to seize opportunities to take on greater responsibilities. And if you can answer those questions, you can then go back to your supervisor with practical alternatives to you handling that new project all on your own, if at all.

And sometimes, of course, you do need to say no. A good rule of thumb to help you avoid coming off lazy or whiny is to frame your reasons for declining more work in terms of what’s best for your team. Maybe taking on a new project will detract from other important tasks.

If your boss disagrees with your logic, calmly figure out the reasons why. As author and social scientist Joseph Grenny told Fast Company, it’s important to “acknowledge what you know to be true and tell your boss how it caused your conclusion. Ask how your boss came to her conclusion. If you’re simply in a no-yes argument, you’re arguing conclusions, not facts.”


Being overworked can feel isolating, like you’re no longer part of your team. If you can’t show your boss that you’re capable of working together on a solution, that feeling could become a reality.

Related: Can You Combat Burnout?

About the author

Rich Bellis was previously the Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.